When RCA Records sent out an early stream of a new album to select music press a month ago, it came with a caveat: The identity of the artist would be kept secret.
No publicity stills or bio were offered with the seven-track project from a new R&B singer who only goes by the moniker H.E.R.
"I can't tell you much about H.E.R. just yet but give it a listen," the label stated in the one-line press release that accompanied the album.
Simply titled "H.E.R., Vol. 1," the release quickly caught fire online despite the lack of information. It turns out that people love a good mystery.
Alicia Keys raved about the project on social media; Wyclef Jean vowed to track her down; and Bryson Tiller posted one of the EP's standout tracks, sultry slow-burner "Focus."
Celebrity co-signs aside, word of mouth among listeners traveled wide, sending the album to No. 1 on the iTunes R&B chart (as of press time it's seated at No. 5 nearly two weeks after its release). Thus far, H.E.R. songs have logged nearly 80,000 plays in 10 days on the singer's Soundcloud.
The cover of the project is just the singer's silhouette standing in front of a blue background. While we live in a social-media-driven era of oversharing, H.E.R. certainly isn't the first time an artist has released music under cloak or disguise.
When the Weeknd debuted in 2011 with a trilogy of mixtapes, he did so with an anonymous persona, keeping his real identity hidden and eschewing interviews until he could no longer hide. Additionally, rapper Leikeli47 never appears without a ski mask.
What's more, R&B act Dvsn put out one of the year's most buzzed about debuts in "Sept. 5th," but fans were given next to zero biographical information on the act. Also, pop superstar Sia would rather perform with her back to audiences or hidden beneath a massive wig.
That anonymity, regardless of how it's achieved, is motivated, say artists, not just by savvy marketing but a desire to keep the focus on the music.
But who is H.E.R.? Online sleuths have some theories (hint: she a former child prodigy, they say). But first, why all the secrecy?
"The mystery is a metaphor for who I am, or who I was at the time of creating the project," the singer said by phone in her first interview about the release.
"I feel like oftentimes we don't like to be open as people about our emotions or things that we are going through," she continued. "At the time [of recording], I was very closed off except for when I was writing or when I was in the studio."
H.E.R., an acronym for Having Everything Revealed ("It's kind of ironic, right?" she laughed), is calling from New York, where she's currently at work on the second volume.
So does she live there? She won't say, nor will she reveal her age or any other details that could identify the voice behind the EP.
"I felt like I could truly be honest," she said. "This was the most real I've ever been when it came to creating."
H.E.R., the concept, was birthed in the studio while the singer was in the throes of heartbreak over a toxic relationship.
"I remember saying I'll never be that girl, I'll never be that girl that falls for the wrong guy. I was constantly criticizing that girl and eventually I found myself being that girl, being her," she said.
She set out to record a project that would be about her coming of age — "The evolution of a young woman," the singer said — and the EP is a brief tracing of that relationship.
Yearning, courtship, copulation, friction and conflict all gets explored over dark soul grooves.
"Right now my head is a mess / thinking 'bout you got me stressed / but you could probably care less," she sings on the fiery "U."
H.E.R. declined to discuss who she collaborated with on the project, of course. But a majority of the EP was written and produced by the singer and she admits most of the work was done in private before going to the studio to flesh it out with other artists.
The EP's penultimate track, a soulful cover of Drake's "Jungle," led Internet detectives to link H.E.R. to 19-year-old singer-songwriter Gabi Wilson.
Wilson broke out as a child sensation (she plays five instruments) at the age of 10, performing on a "Most Talented Kids" episode of daytime talker "Maury" before competing in Radio Disney's Next Big Thing contest and landing a deal with RCA at the age of 14 and releasing a bit of music, including a snappy Isley Brothers-sampling single "Something to Prove" in 2014, which she performed at the BET Awards.
The version of "Jungle" that appears on the EP appears identical to the one circulating online under Wilson's name.
So, mystery solved?
H.E.R. declined to confirm or deny the link. Neither artist follows the other on social networks and despite the growing buzz of the project, Wilson has yet to take credit or even promote the EP online. She said she wants fans to "see the growth" as she continues releasing music, and given her presumed identity as a former child star, having the space to maturate in both her music and personal life away from the public could explain the anonymous reintroduction.
The reception to the music has been exceptional, the singer said, and she's anxious to get "Vol. 2" completed. It's expected to arrive later this fall.
As for now, H.E.R. just hopes people, especially women, listen to what she's got to say.
"I want it to be about the music — its honesty and realness. Everything is true to me. I want women to really feel how honest and vulnerable I am and to understand that they are not alone and that these are all human emotions," she said. "I'll reveal who I am in due time."
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